Tuned In: 'Life's Too Short' is HBO's new uncomfortable comedy
Fans of uncomfortable comedy ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and the Ricky Gervais brand of uncomfortable comedy in particular ("The Office," "Extras") may be drawn to HBO's "Life's Too Short" (10:30 tonight), but it's a little too familiar.
In "Extras," Mr. Gervais starred as an unlucky movie extra who often played the part of a fool. In "Life's Too Short," that role goes to "the U.K.'s go-to dwarf," actor Warwick Davis, who plays a fictionalized version of himself. He's followed by a camera crew that's recording his life for a faux documentary, a la "The Office."
Moviegoers have seen Warwick Davis, often covered in makeup, in some of the era's biggest movies, including as Wicket the Ewok in "Return of the Jedi," as Professor Filius Flitwick in the "Harry Potter" films and as the title character in 1988's "Willow."
In "Life's Too Short," the fictional Warwick portrays himself as "a sophisticated dwarf about town who carries himself with dignity," a cue that it's time for him to tumble out of his own SUV.
He's a pathetic character whose wife is divorcing him -- after he walked out on their marriage in search of a younger, more beautiful woman -- and whose new, dim-bulb secretary, Cheryl (scene-stealer Rosamund Hanson), suggests he embark on jobs too dangerous for children, such as being "used as bait to catch a pedophile."
Collaborators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant ("The Office," "Extras") executive produce "Life's Too Short" and appear as versions of themselves. Warwick visits them frequently -- oddly, they're usually both seated on the same side of a shared desk -- and they clearly detest having Warwick stop in.
During one encounter, actor Liam Neeson drops by to try out some comic stand-up material that includes, "I've contracted AIDS from an African prostitute." It's a funny scene about the lack of humor in Mr. Neeson's public persona but also rather random. What does Liam Neeson's comedy aspiration have to do with the story of a dwarf actor who runs a casting agency for fellow little people actors?
This highlights the challenge of maintaining "Life's Too Short": It's a thin premise. There are only so many jokes to be made about a person who behaves above his station in life -- never mind that "Extras" and "The Office" already made many of them -- and "Life's Too Short" ticks off several obvious ones in the first two episodes.
In episode two, Warwick attends a sci-fi convention where he's humiliated by an obnoxious local TV news reporter and lands a gig appearing at a fan's wedding, which, naturally, turns into a disaster.
In between he gets hired by Johnny Depp, who's preparing to play the title role in "Rumpelstiltskin," directed by Tim Burton (of course). Mr. Depp, also playing a version of himself, demands Warwick act out hopping and dancing.
"He's kind of like a grub coming out of an apple seeing the world for the first time," Depp says. But Depp's showcase scene comes when he squares off with Ricky Gervais, who made jokes at Mr. Depp's expense at the Golden Globes last year.
It's funny but another distraction, as if Mr. Gervais doesn't have enough faith in the "Life's Too Short" premise that he has to keep butting in. Maybe that's necessary. The show conjures the most laughs when Mr. Gervais is on screen, but his presence doesn't mesh naturally with Warwick's world.
First Published February 19, 2012 12:00 am